Sunday, July 15, 2012

Summer Reading

I never stood out among my classmates in school, but I have always loved to read and so it is probably inevitable that history became my favorite subject. I particularly seek out biographies as I like nothing better than learning about a time and place through the life of the individuals there.

From the time I was born into a big family with roots in Rhode Island, I have spent the summer in a converted, circa 1890 carriage house surrounded by the enormous relics of a fascinating period in American history. I have enjoyed a few days as a tourist in my own town to share some stories with you.

The Gilded Age name that looms largest in Newport is Vanderbilt. The family left their mark on the physical landscape with several extraordinary houses that they filled with the finest of European art, artifacts and furniture. (Unfortunately, interior photography is not permitted in any of the houses.)

The Breakers, built in 1893 for Cornelius Vanderbilt II, was designed by Richard Morris Hunt who is considered one of America's leading architects of the late 19th century. The house is arguably the crowning example of the opulence and excess that defines the Gilded Age. It contains 70 rooms in approximately 65,000 square feet.

The very best craftsmen and artisans were brought from Europe to the the States to construct these American palaces.

As an earlier building on the property burned, Cornelius insisted that the house be made as fireproof as possible. The structure of the building used steel trusses and no wood. He even required that the furnace be located away from the house; in winter there is an area in front of the main gate over the furnace where snow and ice always melt.

 The Italian Renaissance-style palazzo was inspired by the 16th century palaces of Genoa and Turin.

Prior to the building spree of his offspring, the patriarch of the family, 'The Commodore' Cornelius Vanderbilt, had a hand in shaping the political and financial history of America. The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt is as much the story of a brilliant man and his world as it is the story of the creation of modern capitalism.

The Breakers is one of the few surviving works of Richard Morris Hunt that was not demolished during the last century and is therefore valuable for its rarity as well as its architectural excellence. The house was Hunt’s final work.

The gardens at these Gilded Age houses are not extensive; Newport is much more famous for its rare trees. At The Breakers the formally landscaped terrace is surrounded by specimen trees hand-selected by James Bowditch, a forester based in the Boston area. Bowditch’s original pattern for the south parterre garden was determined from old photographs.

The playhouse built for the seven Vanderbilt children.

Incredible as it is, The Breakers was built for the family to enjoy for a brief six weeks of the summer. The house survives nearly intact and open to the public through the work of The Preservation Society of Newport County.

If you are interested, another good read about the period, its architecture and one of the most notable firms of the day is Triumvirate: McKim, Mead & White: Art, Architecture, Scandal, and Class in America's Gilded Age.


  1. One of the first places I actually felt swept away by architecture was in Newport (I lived in CT as a child, and we used to rent a place in Block Island in the summer). I visited again 2 years ago, and it was wonderful to see everything through adult eyes!

    The detail in the stone carvings is beautiful! What a treasure these homes are.


  2. The craftsmanship from this era is so amazing. I know many of the Vanderbilt mansions in New York were destroyed so it is wonderful that this one has been preserved. If I could travel back in time this is one of the time periods i would want to visit!

    Kim (sparklegem)

  3. It's been ages since we visited Rhode Island and Newport. We are due for another visit. Your photos are really stunning, Phyllis! They can be postcards. BTW, in addition to the architecture I also love artwork from the Gilded Age. Thanks for sharing your amazing photos, friend :-)

  4. Wow! I have never been to Rhode Island. Gorgeous and breathtaking. The skilled labour that created such masterpieces always blows my mind. If only we could temp more young people into skilled trades, and if only we could encourage more people to understand and pay decent wages for their efforts. Lovely read for my Sunday, thanks, B.

  5. There are so many breathtaking buildings in Rhode Island, this post makes me want to visit...I'd then travel over to Connecticut as I've never been there either...thanks for sharing and especially the history portion as I'm a huge history buff as well!

  6. What an absolutely fascinating history - and such incredibly regal architecture - absolutely beautiful! As a history buff myself, I really appreciate learning something new, and this post has been a complete gem. Thanks for sharing such fabulous pictures of your home town.
    Paula xxx

  7. Very interesting history and beautiful pictures!

    Thanks for sharing!

  8. I haven't been to many places in America, but I have been to Newport. It was many years ago and I remember being completely blown away by those mansions! Newport itself was so pretty and I remember thinking, in another life, I would like to live there. Thanks for this trip down memory lane. x Sharon

  9. Beautiful homes, Phyllis, but I think I prefer the Vanderbilt children's playhouse. The main houses are so massive and I fear being so plebeian. Loved the grounds and the trees though and your commentaries. Think I want to read "The First Tycoon."

  10. Wow, beautiful details. They don't build homes like that any more.

  11. What a wonderful history lesson to start my day. Such a gorgeous estate with breathtaking views...could I just live in the playhouse?

  12. The most interesting thing I've read all month! I'm fascinated with the Vanderbilt's and this gave that perfect sneak peak... I'm so curious to see what's inside! New goal - to go see if for myself thanks to you!
    Not only do you have an amazing eye... you're so well read and your writing is wonderful! Thanks for always inspiring me!


  13. Whenever I hear the name Vanderbilt I associate it with luxurious living but I didn't know much about the history of the Vanderbilt name.
    Love those glazed vaulted ceiling and the copper rainpipes, what gorgeous attention to detail. The views are spectacular. I wonder what the gardens originally looked like.
    Thank you Phyllis this wonderfully informative post has been a great way to start my day.
    Paul X


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